news-category: Graduate programs

Nichole Ijames Wins Gravett Citizen Scholar Award for Her Dissertation on Resiliency of Black Female Principals

A college featuring principal Nichole Ijames posing with students, alone and a student award winner
Dr. Nicole Ijames poses with students, left, and a student-athlete honoree, right.

Research Identifies Ways to Support and Amplify These Voices in Leadership

During her 25 years in public education—12 as an administrator—Dr. Nichole Ijames has relied on her own resiliency and witnessed that trait in her colleagues. Intrigued by these strong and confident women, Ijames chose to interview Black women principals and study their resiliency for her research in the Doctor of Education in Educational Leadership (EdD) program at Gardner-Webb University.

Nicole Ijames receives the award from Dr. Sydney Brown
Dr. Nichole Ijames receives the award from Dr. Sydney Brown,
Dean of the Gayle Bolt Price School of Graduate Studies
and professor in the College of Education.

Her dissertation, “Armored Vulnerability: Stories of Leader Resilience Among Black Female Principals,” won the 2022 Darlene J. Gravett Citizen Scholar Award. Nominated by faculty in the Gayle Bolt Price School of Graduate Studies, the award is presented to a graduate student whose scholarly research has the potential to make a distinct contribution to the improvement of society.  

Ijames remembers clearly when the concept of resiliency became a reality for her. “I had experienced a difficult day in leadership,” she described. “I knew there was purpose in the leadership, but it was tough to have your heart misunderstood. So, I knelt by my bedside. I was crying, and my husband had his hand on one shoulder and my son on the other. And they were silently praying. As I was kneeling there by my bedside, it was clear, what are you going to do? You are going to get up tomorrow, and you are going to lead. This is a call, and you are going to find the strength and you are going to do the right thing.”

She continued, “That is what resilient leaders do. You go back in, you find the strength, and you are real about it…there is something else that calls you there the next morning.”

A native of Jamaica, Ijames came to America with her parents when she was 12. She always wanted to be an educator, but her first experience in American schools soured her on the profession. In Jamaica, when teachers enter a classroom, the students stand in honor. However, in the first school she attended in Brooklyn, N.Y., she was the only student who stood in respect for the teacher.

Later, her family moved to North Carolina, and she was awarded a Teaching Fellow scholarship to become a school counselor. During college, though, she switched her major back to education. She was hired as a social studies teacher in Newton-Conover City Schools and taught in the same high school for 11 years. In 2008, she was accepted into the Principal Fellows program and began her first administrative role in 2010. 

Nicole Ijames presents a diploma to a student at graduation
Dr. Nichole Ijames congratulates a student during the graduation ceremony at her school.

At certain times over the years, Ijames spoke on resiliency and heard about it from fellow black leaders. When she began the EdD program in January 2020, a dissertation on the topic was foremost in her mind. Her advisor, Dr. Stephen Laws, encouraged her to pursue the research because she cared about the subject, and he sensed the potential impact of her findings.

Laws was the reason Ijames decided to enter the doctoral program at Gardner-Webb. She had just received the Principal of the Year for Catawba Schools, and one of her colleagues recommended that he contact her.

She had no intention of registering, but Laws persuaded her by what he didn’t say. “He was so personable, so relatable and so authentic,” she insisted. “I didn’t feel like I was being sold on a school. He just wanted to see how Gardner-Webb could support my vision for who I am as a leader. I felt like he had my best interests at heart. He left and I knew, this is the school I’m going to go to, because if they have more mentors like this, I need this kind of support.”

For her dissertation, Laws put her in touch with educators across the state who could recommend Black women principals to participate. She interviewed 10 women, who represented North Carolina’s eight education regions. They were all excited to contribute and the general consensus was, “We’ve got to show up for each other, because this is a story that needs to be told,” Ijames related.

While conducting and processing the interviews, Ijames discovered five dominant themes. The first one was armored vulnerability—learning how to be strong in weakness. “These women talked about finding strength because of their family, their faith, and communities,” she noted. The other ideas were an acknowledgement of the need for support, a willful persistence in growing from experiences of racial and gendered diminishment, self-agency or managing emotions, and a commitment to the vision of purposeful leadership.

Ijames said she grew as a leader through Gardner-Webb’s program, and she strives to inspire her staff. “I get to pull from the research that I have been exposed to and share with them,” she explained. “It’s the practice of being clearer and being principled with the work. Not just saying, research says this but tell me about the research. Let’s engage them with why we are doing this.”

She continues to advocate for black women principals and administrators. “There is a growing call to support and celebrate these unsung and muted voices in leadership,” Ijames affirmed. “I believe my next steps will be to work more intentionally to support and make room for their (our) voices in educational leadership.”

Dr. Nichole Ijames, left, poses with her family and at right, with Dr. Stephen Laws, her advisor.

Gardner-Webb University is North Carolina’s recognized leader in private, Christian higher education. A Carnegie-Classified Doctoral/Professional University, GWU is home to six professional schools, 14 academic departments, more than 80 undergraduate and graduate majors, and a world-class faculty. Located on a beautiful 225-acre campus in Boiling Springs, N.C., Gardner-Webb prepares graduates to impact their chosen professions, equips them with the skills to advance the frontiers of knowledge, and inspires them to make a positive and lasting difference in the lives of others. Ignite your future at Gardner-Webb.edu.

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